Chester Martin: Bad Chattanooga

Monday, May 6, 2019 - by Chester Martin

Yep, you heard me right, folks: I said "Bad Chattanooga"!  That concept came about based on  some recent items in both national and local news. It has also been suggested by several readers who have criticized me for seldom mentioning "the bad stuff", so here I am - about to take a swing or two against one of my favorite places on earth!

Nationally speaking, there has been much talk recently about increasing the minimum wage to a sum that would have created mass hysteria, if not a wave of heart attacks, among all my former employers - going back to the late 1940s! On the second of this month, May of 2019, I even heard that certain new companies are now contemplating a $21.00/hour minimum wage! These huge leaps, needless to say, arrested my attention.....

For one of my long-time problems with Chattanooga had been with the low wages paid, for as a high-schooler (ca.

1950) the going rate for students was only about 25 cents to 35 cents per hour. A grown man (then thought of as "bread-winner" for his entire family) might be lucky enough to receive $35 for a hard week's work - meaning a full 40 hours, and frequently an additional full day on Saturdays - no "afternoons off"! These were the only jobs available, so the worker gritted his teeth and "took it". Few people quit these jobs for fear of having to start low again in another company, plus the loss of any "seniority" which might have existed.  Although a lucky key man at a local industry (non-union, mind you), MIGHT make $50 a week - and even fewer yet would take home $100 a week, I can tell you that the greater majority of hirelings at local businesses were kept much closer to the 25-35 cent level than to that magic number of $100.

And so, about two years ago, I was dismayed to read the salaries of all the local County brass - their salaries so far distant from the realities of my 1950s world that I had to sit down to let the facts seep in and avoid the shock. The thoughts of my own beginnings - after graduating  from the university, and after a full 4-year tour of US Air Force duty - I started my professional career for $65 per week, with a company so conservative I had to "job-hop" to another similar company for more money. Our local business owners have long been anti-union, and although I have never been a union member, it is easy to see how someone MIGHT like the idea of joining one and receiving "protection". (I have a second cousin in Buffalo New York, exact same age as me, who has "0" college, but worked as a union member for 20 years. He drove a Cadillac all his working years, and now into retirement.....

I can also show you where several homes of the former Big Bosses were located here in (or near) town, and old photos can show you the opulence of the lives those people must have lived - on their fine estates in Red Bank, Oak Street, Missionary Ridge, the Mountains, Hixson, and elsewhere. Perhaps those men did not pocket the amount that the Disney heiress claims for Disney's CEO today, but they unashamedly made hundreds of times more than their lowly employees.

(One of my early bosses (the $65/week man) boasted of being a 33rd Degree Mason who  participated in Shrine activities. He also boasted of having a company aircraft to "fly sick children to the new St. Jude's hospital in Memphis." By chance, I got to see that company plane once - so small that pilot and passenger could only just barely squeeze in!)

And now, in recent months and weeks, we are hearing more about a general liberalizing of wages: the very idea of a $15/hr starting wage! I can only imagine the outcry from ANY of my former Chattanooga bosses at the very thought of it! I can hear them groaning in their graves even as I write! For I clearly remember the look of shocked horror on one of my former bosses' face when I asked for $5 more per WEEK!  "CHESTER - that will cause even more INFLATION...) And on Friday, May 3, 2019, I heard on the national news that $27 is about the national average now for the average worker nation-wide! (But perhaps not in Chattanooga!). Try predicting that $27 wage to a family living in their Southside shack back in the 1940s and you would have been sent to the nearest insane asylum! Back then many houses were tiny wooden shacks  with either two rooms and a kitchen, or maybe just one room and kitchen, though more than one family might live there. Large numbers of privately owned one-story brick row-houses were scattered all around town, but I best remember the ones at the corner of 10th and Newby Streets, and also on Chestnut Street, south of the Aquarium. One of my former (very wealthy)  bosses was an owner of these and could be seen actually collecting the rents himself from the poor black renters. He would easily have classified as a "slum-lord", but I doubt he would have liked the title.  You can't imagine the numbers of these "houses" that have disappeared since about 1960. There were a great many of these places all through the city, with a great outcropping of them near the train overpass at the south end of Broad Street. I know, because my grandfather, James Lyde Young, died in such a building there at age 43, in 1903. I have a picture of it. 

And I can tell you about racial segregation in those years of my youth - where black people were referred to as the "colored race", and had designated areas to "wait" in at train and bus stations. Always kept out of sight for white customers, you can rest assured that the "colored" waiting areas were inferior to the white. Public restrooms and drinking fountains, as in the larger department stores downtown, were also segregated; I never even knew where the black people's facilities were!  Our former Southern Coach Lines city buses all carried signs above the windows behind the driver which stated, "This part (meaning the front) of bus for White Race, and Back for Colored Race" (or words to that effect). I never saw anyone disobey that law - or any other such ruling. Never an actual "law", black people were free to ride our city buses (sitting in the back); they could get off the bus and work in white homes or yards all day, but were expected to be back in their own homes and neighborhood by nightfall. Schools were also segregated - and so, as school children were deemed to be the weakest and less threatening part of Society, it was the "Desegregation of Schools" issue which became the focal point of the Civil Rights movement. President Harry S. Truman (FDR's successor) had integrated all the US military barracks around the end of World War II, so the big push for racial integration was begun. Schools were next. (And I will hasten to add here that these were NATIONAL problems - not Chattanooga's alone)

And what followed - with all the turmoil relating to "busing" of school children to equalize racial quotas was very rough on both races, I think. It was very expensive, for one thing, and the safety issue was yet another, though the fact that it was FORCED was not the least of these. All these issues working together kept our area (and most of the entire country) in a constant state of outrage and uproar for many years. I personally think that the Chattanooga Times newspaper did more to keep the peace than any other single element through this entire depressing period. And I say that because local people had been "born and raised" on the Chattanooga Times since soon after the Civil War. When the Times editorials spoke, the locals paid attention, and I do not remember any serious outbreak of racial tensions here. Life went on pretty normally living "one day at a time". (True that there were some minor skirmishes, as one at the then new Brainerd High School which I witnessed from a distance, and which was resolved fairly quickly). That high school had been built for the white kids of an ever-burgeoning Brainerd - just at the time the black people had dared to move through the Wilcox Tunnel, eastward into a formerly all-white section of Brainerd. They needed the new building as well, so were integrated into it. Troubles soon erupted, however, over such issues as the name of the football team: "The Brainerd Rebels", which the blacks could not abide. This and other matters, doubtless, created issues and frictions which went on for a time - the whites mostly moving gradually away toward East Brainerd.

Another big issue of my earlier life was pollution! Many families of the 1930s, '40s and '50s heated their houses with coal furnaces - as did my own family. At Sunnyside School we would arrive in our classroom to find small beads of soot on our desk seats - soot that had to be removed before you dared sit down. Soot was floating through the air downtown - being belched out by many smokestacks in the industrial (Southside) part of town, basically. From the new ridge-cut of the mid 1960's you could look west of a morning and see what appeared to be a very dense layer of smog with a grey, dark industrial area beneath it. Above it all, our majestic Lookout Mountain! Although an intriguing subject for both artists and photographers, it was NOT a local feature to be admired. I cannot outline for you all the steps necessary or taken to rid the city of all this pollution - I just know it was done. I think some of the old smokestacks may still exist, but they no longer spew forth their evil charges of pollution. There were many old industries in Chattanooga , foundries and such - now mostly gone, and my dad knew all the whistle-sounds to indicate shift-change at each one. When the wind was right we could hear them from over Missionary Ridge at my Brainerd home. Look for some of those old smoke-stacks in John Wilson's many descriptive photo books.

As a child, before age three, we still lived in North Chattanooga and would cross the Walnut Street Bridge very often coming into town. My earliest memories of the river from this time were of it being a slightly muddy color - never ugly, but like very light-colored coffee. Have much more recently imagined that the discoloration must have come from floods upstream, rather than by industrial dumping, but do not know for sure. I even remember the same brown discoloration from my high school days of 1950. I was rarely near either river or lake as we were never boat-people, fishermen, water-skiers, or etc., but I do not recall either body of water being badly polluted. Brainerd Junior HS teacher Mr. Edwin Tichenor taught us in his science classes about 1947 or '48 that any water polluted in the Tennessee River as it left Knoxville would be "pure" before reaching Chattanooga - a fact I used to rely on. Am not sure if the same thing holds true today, but I do think our area is blessed with "acceptably"clean water. True "the government" has played a large part in any clean-ups - and companies like Bowaters, near Athens, TN, have gone to great effort and expense to make sure the water they use in their paper-making process is returned into the Tennessee River in pristine cleanliness and at normal river temperature. I have often scoffed at people who PAY for bottled water thinking our tap-water impure! The only bottled water I have ever tried was perhaps two bottles that were given to me, as on a picnic and away from home. We have excellent water here, folks, and I've been told that a lot of bottled water comes from the bottom of artesian wells where some bad stuff is found!

Yes, Chattanooga has had many challenges to overcome, like utter destitution at the end of the Civil War: we could not have survived so well without infusions of "carpetbaggers' cash"!  Hated as they may have been, we needed 'em, folks! Better to have a few pennies than absolute starvation! It is true, though, that some of those old "entrenched"carpetbaggers saw a way to block new blood and new ideas from coming in; they wanted to domineer the entire Chattanooga scene and especially keep wages low. Within the last quarter century I remember a conversation I had with a Lookout Mountain type - the great-great-grandson of one of those crusty old 19th-Century carpetbaggers, who told me directly how his great-great-grandfather had actively worked to prevent new business from coming into Chattanooga - a step the younger man greatly laments! There was no altruism about the older gentleman's motives - it was for pure greed. (Really good to hear such straight talk confirming the suspicions of our working-class fathers, who firmly believed that they were being held back by invisible hands, and making us realize today that they were not so paranoid after all!)

I have written several times that I am glad to have lived at the present time - to have seen so many changes take place in my city, my country, - and the world. As a kid - and until about age 20 there were horse-drawn vehicles in town!  Can you imagine that? And they were NOT taking tourists on round-robin tours from Aquarium, to Choo-Choo, to a cute little new restaurant on Main Street, and back: no, they were simple pick-up and delivery vehicles - mostly operated by black men who were eking out a small living, trying to feed a wife and family. I have seen the quagmires on country dirt roads which used to exist all around Chattanooga. My parents saw the automobile and electric light bulb arrive, and now I have seen the space-age emerge, followed by High Tech and the Internet. I would literally go crazy if they took away my Internet, so I think I have successfully kept up with a lot of the new.

TVA, although not a private agency, was one of the earlier tide-turners in our economic life. Starting up about 1940, their great need for engineers brought new blood to town from all over the country: well-educated people often from big universities. Combustion Engineering, a private subsidiary of a New England company, also served us well by boosting the wages of people lucky enough to work there, but Chattanooga's new DuPont plant - a totally private company -probably did more to set Chattanooga on its modern course than any other entity. Now we are richly blessed with such world-class industries as Volkswagen and a variety of innovative new "start-up" businesses undreamed of only a few years ago. Obviously then, it follows that the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga must forever keep pace with with all the new demands - as also with the Chattanooga State Technical Community College. The University, especially, has grown tremendously in my lifetime. Oak Street was once a mainly residential street - and just look at it now! 

Only yesterday did I hear mention of such a thing as a $21 STARTING salary in some US businesses! I was jolted out of my easy-chair when I heard that, and to think that $15/hr is already "old hat"! . Wow! That thought pushes me even farther back into Freddy Flintstone's Stone Age than ever before, as I can still remember the joy of hearing my 35 cents (per hour) jingling on that old 1950 counter top at the drug store as I bought a large hamburger and large coke for that amount! (But just remember that those three dimes were pure silver in those days, though, and made a really musical jingling sound when dropped - a joy you modern kids may never know! And the nickel? Well it didn't make as cool a sound as the dimes for sure, but certainly did not sound as dead as the modern nickel!) YOUR MONEY TODAY IS NOT BACKED BY ANYTHING TANGIBLE! I just hope I can live long enough to see how that $21/hr wage goes over.

Oh, yes, before I go: I want to come back to the racial thing for a moment, as that was probably the most important domestic issue our country has had to deal with in my lifetime, and which I like to believe is all past now. Taking stock of myself, I like to re-hash in my mind just how I related and reacted to that movement. School integration was just beginning in the early 1960's  - just as I was starting out as an artist. My artistic idol at that time had for many years been Norman Rockwell, the great American artist/illustrator, and so when he published a painting (in Look Magazine, 1963) of a little black girl being escorted to school by four US Marshals, I responded to Rockwell with a letter of support for his painting as it was very controversial. To my delight, he replied with a typed letter, crafted to what I had written  - and signed with a real signature. To my  incredulous belief, my original letter was turned up by someone researching the artist one year ago in 2018 at the Norman Rockwell Museum and Archive at Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The copy of my original letter had been carefully preserved there - and they sent me a free photo copy of it. It details my support better than anything else could do - for the Civil Rights movement in America.  

Yes, I love Chattanooga, as I see most of the "old" bad stuff going away. I know there are a lot of things I surely missed - both good and bad - like the destruction of Cameron Hill (bad) and the Chattanooga Zoo (good). But now we are faced with "new" bad stuff, like drugs, porn, crime,  etc., though we are certainly not alone in this matter; it is everywhere. Best consolation I have comes from something an old Methodist preacher said back in the 1940s - that if we look for Good we can find it.  I look for it all the time!

A reader inspired me to write this story - or, better, pushed me into it. It had kinda been germinating for a long while in the back of my mind, and this was the perfect opportunity to vent some long-held feelings. Maybe YOU could point me in yet another direction sometime!  Also, if you like Art, please check out my new "Chester Martin's Art Blog" under "Happenings" (in this newspaper). Let me attempt to answer your questions!

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Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter, sculptor and artisan as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at

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